Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Reformers Only Mornin' Glories

In today's Washington Post, Richard Cohen has a great op-ed in which he expresses his dismay over the Obama campaign throwing Jim Johnson, its former VP vetter, overboard:
It is abundantly clear that Johnson got home loans from Countrywide Financial, the company that Obama and others have blamed for contributing to the subprime mortgage debacle. It is not abundantly clear, however, that Johnson did anything wrong. The Wall Street Journal, which has done the major reporting on this story, said that some of Johnson's loans were "at lower-than-average interest rates" and that he got other kinds of considerations.

If Johnson were being contemplated for banking commissioner or something similar, this might be a problem. But he has instead been asked to vet Obama's vice presidential candidates. Only if one of them is connected with Countrywide Financial can I see a difficulty. That is not about to happen.

No matter. Others pounced on the story, finding Johnson very guilty association – inferentially indebted to the reviled Countrywide. Soon the GOP took up the cry that Johnson must go, and, after a moment's hesitation, he did. The Obama campaign thus showed a talent for retreat and, in the process, lost the services of someone who broke no law, greased no palm and has a reputation in Washington for integrity and sound judgment. That's why Obama had turned to him.

The Bush administration has done much to debase the coinage of experience. George Bush's inner circle – Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld above all – was rich in experience and poor in judgment. But it was not experience that led the Bushies astray. It was ideology, and that, of course, can addle the judgment of the experienced and the inexperienced alike. If the lesson we take from the debacle of Iraq is that experience does not matter, than we have lost the war twice over.

The departure of Jim Johnson is a bad omen. Already, the McCain campaign has purged itself of lobbyists, as if just being one is proof of corruption – or as if all lobbyists are the same and, on account of what they do, irredeemably slimy. The Obama campaign has pledged to be just as clean. But what matters are the judgment and integrity of the candidate, not whether an adviser once got a bargain mortgage from a notorious lending institution or was once a lobbyist. This search for virgins will not result in a clean government, but one, instead, that lacks the past to plan the future.

I couldn't agree more with the point Cohen makes. Being an insider isn't inherently a bad thing. Obama clearly agrees with this, as his top advisers are David Plouffe and David Axelrod, whose firm, AKP&D Media, boasts a client list including the DNC, DCCC, and numerous presidential campaigns, senators, congressman, governors and other assorted elected officials.

Similarly, lobbyists aren't inherently evil either. While she was pilloried last summer for refusing to follow Barack Obama and John Edwards in barring lobbyists from contributing to her campaign, Hillary Clinton was exactly right when she argued that "You know, a lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They actually do. They represent nurses. They represent, you know, social workers. They represent, yes, they represent corporations. They employ a lot of people."

When I was in college, I was represented by lobbyists employed by my alma mater; as a union member, I'm currently represented by lobbyists working for my union; and as a New Yorker, I'm represented by New York City's lobbyists in Albany and Washington, D.C. There are, of course, many lobbies with which I disagree, but to demonize all lobbyists, or all "political insiders," is misguided. They should be judged based on what they are actually advocating for, not merely for the fact that they are advocating for something.

U.S. News's Michael Barone points out something important that most people tend to overlook - the right to lobby is a fundamental Constitutional right:

Behind this stigmatization of lobbyists is the notion that the failure to produce legislation in the public interest stems from the existence of lobbyists. Which is obviously nonsense. We couldn't abolish lobbying without repealing the First Amendment, which gives all of us, even those who are paid to do it, the right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." And the government could not sensibly do business without lobbyists.

It is a simple fact of life that when Congress writes laws and the executive branch writes regulations that channel vast flows of money –and laws and regulations that have vast moral implications –citizens affected by those words are going to try to make sure they're written the way they want. They're going to hire the best people they can find to do so. They want lobbyists with connections –and with expertise. They can help lawmakers understand how the words they write will affect "real Americans."

That's why I was pleased to see Clinton defend lobbying not only for those whom her Democratic audience considers good interests (nurses, social workers) but for those they don't (corporations). Implicitly, she's rejected the distinction made by the head of the Humane Society of the United States, who recently contrasted "special interest lobbyists" (presumably those working for profit-making interests) with "socially responsible lobbyists" (those working for nonprofits). But even lobbyists for nonprofits have a monetary motive: to keep their (often six-figure) salaries flowing in.

Yes, K Street is not perfect. Old, entrenched interests tend to be well represented. New and growing industries and morally motivated companies that are unorganized tend to be underrepresented. The high-tech industry figured it could get along without much representation in Washington until Microsoft got slapped with an antitrust suit a decade ago. Now it hires lobbyists in droves.

Not much of this will change in a McCain or Obama administrations… Both candidates are proposing healthcare, carbon emission, and tax changes, legislation that will – and should – face heavy lobbying. Which is fine. Such laws will have enormous ramifications, and everyone who wants to should chime in. Even – if I can uses that dreaded word again – lobbyists.

All of which explains why I'm repeatedly infuriated by both McCain and Obama's disingenuous demagoguery on these issues. Both of them would rather avoid the appearance of impropriety than have an honest discussion with the American people about the role insiders and lobbyists play in politics. Rather than admit that, yes, they are politicians, with all that entails, they would rather jettison allies and aides as needed in order to pretend that they are "purer" than their peers and don't subscribe to politics-as-usual,

I find it particularly ironic that both Barone's and Cohen's columns were inspired by Obama's treatment of Jim Johnson, because there was a far better reason not to use him as a VP vetter: a track record of failure.

Just as experience and connections don't guarantee bad results, nor do they guarantee success either. Those who argue that Johnson was qualified rest their case on his two claims to fame: he managed Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign, and he was in charge of vetting potential VP's for John Kerry in 2004, yet both of which ended poorly for Democrats. Johnson led Mondale into his 49-state routing by Ronald Reagan (Reagan amassed 525 electoral college votes, to Mondale's 13); and he led John Kerry to choose John Edwards as his running mate, which he would later regret, as detailed by both Time and the New York Times.

For all of the talk of Obama's vaunted judgment, choosing Jim Johnson was a poor choice, just not for the reasons repeated incessantly by the press.

Lastly, the discussion of "insiders" reminds me of an essay by the inimitable George Washington Plunkitt. While he characteristically overstated his case, Plunkitt was on to something about the necessary role of those who make a career in politics when he wrote the following (from Plunkitt of Tammany Hall):

The fact is that a reformer can't last in politics. He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket. Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business. You've got to be trained up to it or you're sure to fail. Suppose a man who knew nothing about the grocery trade suddenly went into the business and tried to conduct it according to his own ideas. Wouldn't he make a mess of it? He might make a splurge for a while, as long as his money lasted, but his store would soon be empty. It's just the same with a reformer. He hasn't been brought up in the difficult business of politics and he makes a mess of it every time.

I've been studyin' the political game for forty-five years, and I don't know it all yet. I'm learnin' somethin' all the time. How, then, can you expect what they call "business men" to turn into politics all at once and make a success of it? It is just as if I went up to Columbia University and started to teach Greek. They usually last about as long in politics as I would last at Columbia.

You can't begin too early in politics if you want to succeed at the game. I began several years before I could vote, and so did every successful leader in Tammany Hall. When I was twelve years old I made myself useful around the district headquarters and did work at all the polls on election day. Later on, I hustled about gettin' out voters who had jags on or who were too lazy to come to the polls. There's a hundred ways that boys can help, and they get an experience that's the first real step in statesmanship. Show me a boy that hustles for the organization on election day, and I'll show you a comin' statesman.

That's the a, b, c of politics. It ain't easy to work to get up to q and z. you have to give nearly all your time and attention to it. Of course, you may have some business or occupation on the side, but the great business of your life must be politics if you want to succeed in it…

Do you understand now, why it is that a reformer goes down and out in the first or second round, while a politician answers to the gong every time? It is because the one has gone into the fight without trainin', while the other trains all the time and knows every fine point of the game.

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